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AAS Workshop: Modest Aperture Space Telescope Astronomy in the 2020s

Workshop at the 240th meeting of the American Astronomical Society
Saturday/Sunday, June 11/12, 2022, Pasadena, California

Russell Genet, Office of Research, California Polytechnic State Univ.,

Michael Garcia, NASA Astrophysics Division, Space Science Directorate,

Paul Scowen, NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center, Exoplanets & Stellar Astrophysics Lab,

Duncan Farrah, Dept. of Physics and Astronomy, University of Hawaii,

Rachel Freed, Institute for Student Astronomical Research,

Ivan Altunin, University of California, Berkeley,

In the 2020s, fully autonomous constellations of mass-produced, modest aperture UV and IR telescopes, could bring to space-based astronomical research many of the same benefits that have been provided by arrays and networks of autonomous ground-based visual-wavelength telescopes. Such constellations would nicely complement the autonomous visual ground telescopes as well as larger space telescopes. These constellations would not only expand the space research opportunities of professional astronomers and their graduate students but, thanks to economies of quantity production and their autonomous operation, could also open up research opportunities for undergraduate students and citizen scientists in a manner similar to what has already occurred with autonomous ground-based systems. Advances in technology, quantity production of components, lower launch costs, and wide-band communications should help create a synergistic balance between large and small telescopes in space similar to what has already been achieved between large and small telescopes on the ground.

ASTERIA, the first CubeSat telescope, has been observing exoplanet transits. Left: Two recent college graduates at JPL obtain hands-on experience with ASTERIA. Right: artist’s conception of ASTERIA in orbit.

Constellations of fully autonomous UV and IR CubeSat telescopes in space could provide time-series photometric and spectroscopic follow-up observations of interesting objects identified by larger space and ground survey telescopes. The few (and expensive) large survey telescopes take discovery “snapshots,” while the numerous (and low cost) smaller ground telescopes (at visual wavelengths) and space telescopes (at UV and IR wavelengths) make follow-up “movies” of interesting objects. Together, these various telescopes could form a synergistic, efficient whole.

The CubeSat Astronomy in the 2020s workshop was held on January 4, 2020, at the American Astronomical Society’s winter meeting in Honolulu, Hawaii. The 70+ attendees were a mix of university and NASA scientists, engineers, and commercial company representatives, as well as a sizable contingent of undergraduate and high school published student researchers.

Introductions and overviews will launch the first day (Saturday) of the 2022 AAS workshop, followed by a detailed examination of the UV and IR astronomical research programs that autonomous constellations of modest-aperture space telescopes could support and enhance. The final session of the first day will explore potential advances in UV and IR sensor technologies that could extend the wavelength coverage and sensitivity of future telescopes. A workshop banquet is planned for that evening.


The second day (Sunday) will begin with a detailed consideration of autonomous operation, not only of the spacecraft themselves, but also autonomous scheduling of observations in coordination with other space and ground telescopes, as well as downloading, preprocessing, and distribution of the data. All observations would be archived and made available to the public after an appropriate delay.


The workshop will then consider the non-astronomical aspects of these constellations of space telescopes—including buses, launch, and communications—with the goal of reducing costs to the point where telescope time will not only be available to professional astronomers and their graduate students but also to undergraduate and high school students as well as citizen scientists for well-planned research projects with published results. Just as highly economical autonomous operation of networks of ground-based telescopes, such as Las Cumbres Observatory and Skynet, has fostered student and citizen science research, economical autonomous constellations of UV and IR CubeSat and SmallSat telescopes should foster student and citizen science research, helping to “democratize” space. The final session will consider how academic, governmental, and industrial organizations could work together to make these space telescope constellations a reality. The final session will be followed by the AAS evening reception.


Saturday, June 11, 2022

Introductions and Overviews

UV Science Programs


IR Science Programs

Sensor Technology Advances

Workshop Banquet


Sunday, June 12, 2022

Autonomous Operation

Buses, Launch, and Communications


Student and Citizen Science Research

Organizing for the Future

AAS Reception

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